What’s Good to Know About Creating Rural Educator Networks

By Danette Parsley
May 2018
A group of people walking down a school hallway

There is quite a bit of buzz these days about the concept of forming educator collaboratives, which is great news. Much is being written on the benefits of establishing educator networks designed to serve a specific purpose. For example, in The Mindful Teacher, Elizabeth MacDonald and Dennis Shirley show that teachers engaged in purposeful collaborative learning experiences gain the opportunity to improve their classroom practice as well as develop as leaders.

Yet, most of the research focus has been on collaboratives in urban environments. So far, few studies have looked at the experiences and results from collaboratives in rural contexts. (One notable exception is our colleague Daniel Muijs’ piece on collaboration and networking among rural schools that appeared in the Peabody Journal of Education that we edited in 2015.)

Educators in remote, rural schools often have limited access to the same professional development opportunities that their urban and suburban counterparts receive, and they consistently find themselves having to do more with less. Because of that, finding innovative ways to network and collaborate with other educators experiencing similar circumstances becomes a necessity.

Over the last two years, I have written an article on professional networks that support rural educators for American Educator magazine and contributed a piece on building a professional network of rural educators from scratch for the Albert Shanker Institute blog. A case study on how teachers in isolated communities can collaborate across vast distances also appears in a 2017 report on collaborative professionalism by Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’Connor.

Through our experience creating and facilitating NW RISE since 2013, here are three takeaways for districts looking to form or join collaboratives:

Design With Intention

While successful collaboratives are organic and shaped by the participants, they also require intentional design. Structuring a new network around research-based practices is ideal; it’s not always feasible, however, to implement a model with fidelity due to factors such as context, cost and time.

Keeping in mind a scarcity of available literature on the design and start-up phases of rural collaboratives and the need to create a model to match the context of our members, NW RISE didn’t base its structure on one specific model. Rather, we thoughtfully designed the network to include what we deduced from existing research on long-standing successful networks as essential elements—such as shared goals and careful participant selection.

Having a solid design in place—what we refer to as our network “architecture”—gave us firm footing to launch our efforts. But, it hasn’t ended there. We continually revisit and refine the architectural elements as we learn and grow. (You can find more about the theoretical foundation of NW RISE, as well as literature related to the rural school context, professional capital and education networks, in this Peabody article.)

Create Network Leadership From Within

We are proud that NW RISE is a grassroots educator initiative that is shaped and led by participants who do all the “work.”

Through NW RISE, teachers and administrators collaborate in job-alike groups—or in other words, their NW RISE peers from the same grade level or subject area. Members decide what they want to take on, how to do it and what they want to learn together. Together, they identify common needs; develop solutions and provide each other with peer feedback, assistance and accountability.

Job-alike groups are committed to working toward common goals, and they are flexible enough to allow colleagues to engage in ways that work best for their group.

Provide Strong Behind-the-Scenes Support

Though NW RISE is self-directed by the participating districts and educators, Education Northwest’s role is to serve as the backbone organization that keeps the collaborative operating, communicating, and moving forward. When we designed NW RISE, our intent was to recede by this point.

What we’ve learned is that without a backbone to keep fueling the mission and providing technical support, there is no network. Rather than reduce our role, we’ve worked with the steering committee (comprised of teachers, principals, superintendents and SEA representatives) to clarify what we contribute.

With backbone support in place and a critical mass of committed network leaders, we are ready to expand the network and bring in new districts to mix in with our veteran NW RISE educators. In doing so, we hope to expand the network’s reach, innovation and dedication to increasing student engagement in rural schools across our region.